Text by Curt Bowen, Jason Richards,
and Andy Pitkin
Text editor Jacki Clark
“A billion stars illuminate the remote sky as the yelps of coyote packs echo across the desert. A beam of light suddenly flickers from inside the dark cave entrance. Seven hours have passed since the deep exploration team entered the cave with the goal to push this unique desert spring further (and possibly deeper than any other underwater cave in the United States).”
To tell the entire story, we need to flashback to January 2012. Our team of cave explorers, scientists, and underwater photographers was granted a two-year access and collection permit by the US Bureau of Reclamation, the owners and caretakers of the Phantom Springs property.
During the 2012 seven-day expedition, our team managed to extend the known horizontal cave passage from 8,445 feet (2,475 meters) to 9,845 ft (3000 m), and the maximum depth from 79 feet freshwater (24 m) to a totally unexpected 237ffw (72 m). These numbers officially catapulted Phantom Springs Cave to the 14th deepest and 17th longest cave in Texas, also making it the third longest underwater cave in the United States (outside of Florida). We knew then that we had to return and finish what we had begun. (For further details of the 2012 expedition, see http://www.admfoundation.org/projects/phantom/phantomcave.html.)
This year, returning to Phantom with a hand-picked group of the United States’ best underwater cave explorers and other experts, we were prepared to push her ever further and deeper. Through the use of mixed-gas rebreathers, diver propulsion vehicles (DPVs), and additional emergency life support equipment, we could safely continue exploration. Aside from their talents advancing the outer limits of new cave, members of the group also specialize in cave survey, underwater high-definition (HD) videography and photography, and cave biology and science.
Putting together a team like this required us to travel from all over the US to rendezvous in a town near the cave. A few members flew in to the nearest airport, rented a vehicle, and drove the rest of the way. Most members carpooled or drove alone from either Tennessee, other parts of Texas, or central Florida. Joel Clark and I went out ahead of the team, hauling tanks, rebreathers, sofnolime, photo and video equipment, luggage, and other expedition supplies in a cargo van.
Living in the subtropical climate of Florida, I have an image of deserts as places of dry climates and very little precipitation. However, it seems that every time I arrive in western Texas, it’s raining, snowing, or sleeting. Like a scene from the movie “Groundhog Day,” we emerged from the van in the small Texas town of Balmorhea during yet another snowstorm. I fully expected the truck radio to begin playing Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe.” The other team members were stopped on their drives when the whiteout conditions on Interstate 10 forced its closing overnight. Thankfully, the roads were passable by morning, and the group rendezvoused with only a small delay.
In preparation for an arduous week, the group was first separated into five main teams, each with its own objectives. The deep exploration team consisted of Dr. Andrew Pitkin and Brett Hemphill. Their main goal was to extend last year’s end of the line (EOL) as far and deep as logistically possible. The survey team (Michael Poucher, Jason Richards, and Chrissy Richards) had the goal to hand-tape survey as much of the cave as possible, starting from the front and working their way to EOL. The film team consisted of Becky Kagan Schott and Curt Bowen. Their goal was to capture the action and interview the team as events unfolded. The safety and logistics team consisted of Joel Clark and Corey Mearns. Their duties were to provide all teams with any needed support including (but not limited to) stage tank placement and underwater lighting. The last cadre, science, was handled by Dr. Thomas Iliffe, whose goal was to work in-water with other teams to gather water quality and cave inhabitant data.
Team reports follow below.
Phantom Springs Survey January 5-11, 2013
In the 1990s, members of the Maverick Grotto of the National Speleological Society (including Bruce Tipps, Bill Tucker, Jon Drake, Todd Tucker, and Shelby Martin) completed a line plot survey of Phantom Ranch Cave. In addition, Dan Lins added and surveyed an additional portion of line upstream. The map, however, never progressed beyond a line plot (which was enough to give an idea of where the cave was headed underground, but gave no indication of the dimensions or configuration of the cave passage). Therefore, the goal of the 2013 survey team was to increase the Grade 3 survey accuracy (completed by counting knotted line) to a Grade 4 survey by hand-measuring with a fiberglass tape distances between stations. This was in preparation for completing a sketch of the cave, with the ultimate goal of completing a map with floor details, cross sections, and profile views.
With only seven days to complete the work, and competing with video and exploration teams for clear visibility with which to finish sketching, the survey team would have to be in the water every day to make the goal a possibility. Mike Poucher made the 1400-mile drive from Ocala, Florida; and Jason and Chrissy Richards drove from Clarksville, Tennessee through a heavy west Texas snow to begin diving as soon as possible. Rebreathers were the diving tool of choice to maximize time in the water; with Jason diving a heavily-modified rEvo and Mike utilizing a Dive Rite Optima, and both men carrying open-circuit bailout sufficient for safely exiting the cave.
Dives began on Saturday, the fifth of January, with Mike and Jason carrying safety bottles to place in the cave for use by the exploration and survey teams; while Brett and Andy carried decompression bottles for their continued exploration. Beginning just before Bill's Room (where Bill Tucker had ended his original exploration) and working outward, Jason and Mike began the survey, completed 1600 feet of taped survey, and exited after four hours in the water. On Sunday, with another 4.1 hours in the water, Mike and Jason surveyed 2700 more feet of line working from the entrance inward. On Monday the seventh, Mike stayed out of the water due to blisters on the inside of his mouth from a new mouthpiece, and Jason was able to sketch all of the taped survey from the day before with the assistance of Joel Clark running lights. On Tuesday (while Brett and Andy made their deep exploration dive), Jason and Mike scootered out to the 2700-foot safety bottle drop and taped the remaining section of survey. Once back at the entrance, Jason and Chrissy convinced the film crew to help with the dry survey of the front 900 feet of side passages in the cave. With Mike and Chrissy running instruments, and Jason on book, the film crew floated around in chest-deep water, lighting the large passages and generally struggling through the mud.
On Wednesday the ninth, it was raining hard in the morning, making the west Texas mud treacherous; but eventually everyone made it to the cave. After pumping and boosting tanks, Jason and Mike got into the water with the film crew to capture some survey photo and video. The combined teams finally ended the shoot with three more hours in the water. On Thursday, when the weather actually turned nice, Mike and Jason planned to go to the back of the cave and work a section from the end of the survey near Bill's Room down to a depth of 100 feet. After surveying about 325 feet of cave, however, Jason began having trouble clearing his ears and turned the dive.
On Friday, the final day of diving, the only remaining work of the original goal was a short section of 800 feet in the middle of the cave that needed to be sketched. Jason went in early to begin the sketch and bring out one of the safety bottles. Mike followed with Brett and Andy to bring out the remaining safety bottles from the cave. In those six days, Mike and Jason managed to re-survey and sketch a total of 5,769 feet to Grade 4 standard, add an additional 1,080 feet of dry survey, and log a total of 37.7 man-hours of diving between the two of them.
The Task of the Exploration Team
Dr. Andrew Pitkin
Brett Hemphill and Andy Pitkin planned to continue where they left off in January 2012, when the cave passage descended unexpectedly in a series of giant steps from its previous maximum of 70 feet of fresh water (ffw) to over 230 ffw. With insufficient helium and open circuit bailout gas available, they had been forced to stop exploration in a beautiful large borehole passage that they could clearly see was going to reach depths of 280 ffw or more. The substantial flow of clear blue water made it obvious that this deep source tunnel for the rest of the Phantom Spring system was not about to terminate. Much discussion ensued after the 2012 project as to where the cave passage might be going. There were three main possibilities. First, it could continue to descend at the same rate as before until it became too deep to dive. Second, it could start ascending back to its prior shallow depths. Third, it could level off at some unknown depth, forcing the explorers to decide how much horizontal cave passage (with its consequent decompression obligation) they could explore within the limits of their existing open circuit bailout gas. The significant factor here was that all of those extra gas cylinders would need to be placed in the most distant part of the upstream cave passage (over a mile from the entrance), because all their decompression would need to be completed at that point before they could begin to exit through the numerous body-punishing 0-60 ffw roller-coaster passages at the front of the cave.
Andy and Brett used their first dive as reconnaissance. Helped by the survey team of Jason Richards and Mike Poucher, they staged enough bailout gas in the shallow part of the cave to allow safe exit for any diver with a total rebreather failure; and brought additional gas to place in the room where Bill Tucker had ended his exploration (Bill’s Room) and the first section of the deep passage. Having done this, they scootered downwards to the point where they had tied off their guideline and ended their exploration in 2012. Brett tied in with his reel and the pair pointed their DPVs down the steeply sloping passage, following it as it curved around a corner to the south. Around another corner, they dropped into an area where the passage widened at a depth of 320 ffw before entering horizontal passage about 30-40 feet wide and 15 feet high at a depth of 340 ffw. If the passage continued at this depth it would be possible to do a certain amount of horizontal exploration, and the team was certainly experienced and capable of doing so. However, after about only 200 further feet, the tunnel merged with the top of a large, deep, rectangular fracture which ran perpendicular to the cave passage. From the top it was hard to see the floor, but clearly it would be over 400 ffw deep. No obvious continuation of the passage was visible from where they were, so Brett made a secure tie-off on a large rock pendant in the ceiling and they turned around, mindful of the silt being disturbed from the roof of the cave by their bubbles as they ascended.
The substantial increase in depth meant further exploration would require that a great deal more safety gas be transported to the back of the cave, so their next dive was spent hauling bottles. The new passage explored would also need to be surveyed, so when the team returned to the deep passage on January eighth, they began a line survey at the end of 2012’s exploration and finished in the deep fracture room. Despite some equipment problems, this was accomplished fairly efficiently and they arrived in the deep fracture room without further incident. Brett scouted ahead for continuing passage while Andy tied into the end of the old guideline. As they dropped into the fracture it became clear why they had not been able to see the ongoing passage; it was some 50 ffw deeper than the one from which they had entered, and at the bottom of the vertical wall almost directly below it. This new passage was cutting back underneath, towards the north, descending steeply into a large room about 60 feet wide and 30 feet high. Ahead of them they could see a broad expanse of horizontal floor covered with grey silt, and a smaller tunnel (about 30 feet wide and 12 feet high) continuing on in more or less the same direction. As they descended to 400 ffw in depth, they noticed more chert nodules jutting from the walls, similar to the abundant amounts seen in the shallow section between 20 and 30 ffw but strangely absent between. A prominent dark formation protruded from the silt floor, possibly either a complex piece of chert or a fossilized coral. While Andy tied off to this ideal point, Brett looked ahead into the ongoing passage. As far as his light could penetrate, the cave appeared to continue at the same depth (462 ffw) as the floor of the large room. However, at this depth they could not continue exploration within their planned safety envelope; they very reluctantly turned and began their long ascent. They completed five hours of decompression and scootered out of the cave, emerging into a cold but beautiful starry night after a total dive time of 7 hours. Their maximum depth was 462 ffw, establishing Phantom Springs Cave as the deepest naturally-formed underwater cave in the USA.
Plans are in the works for a return expedition back to the depths of Phantom Spring. Due to the extreme depth and distance through widely-ranging shallow depths before the deepest points, however, logistical planning will require inclusion of bailout rebreathers and a possible decompression habitat placed 6,000+ feet into the cave.
Phantom Cave is a strictly closed site and access to the property and/or cave requires a permit issued by the US Bureau of Reclamation. Only two permits are ever concurrently issued, and both are currently assigned until at least 2014.